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Whelks

Fishery Information

There is an emerging fishery in the Gulf of Maine targeting the waved or common whelk (Buccinum undatum). This is a common subtidal species along the western Atlantic coast from Labrador to New Jersey. Whelks in Maine have traditionally been landed as an incidental by-catch of the lobster fishery, with only a handful of harvesters utilizing specially designed whelk traps in a directed effort. The product is typically shipped live for mostly ethnic (oriental) markets in Boston and New York City. A cottage industry also exists that produces pickled meats, and creates shell ornaments. Although no official records existed, landings in past years were routinely less than fifty tons (in shell) per year. During the 1990s, however, there was demand from Asian markets to dramatically increase Maine waved whelk landings to levels that could quickly deplete the base stock. Low-level processing began in at least one coastal community in response to these markets, and a plant in Portland was equipped to process much larger quantities. There were efforts in at least three areas of the coast (Portland, Matinicus, and Lubec) to improve the harvesting, processing and marketing potential of whelks.

A search of the scientific literature back to 1982 revealed the existence of no research on this species in the Gulf of Maine, or for the United States in general. However, in countries where directed whelk fisheries exist or are imminent, numerous biological, population, and management studies reported either observed negative effects on population structure and densities, or anticipated similar effects that are likely in the absence of suitable management strategies. The Maine Department of Marine Resources recognized the immediate need for research on this emerging fishing resource. An emergency regulation was implemented in July, 1996, and a permanent regulation was effected on September, 1996, to provide time for assessment of the new whelk industry.  In 2009, the regulation was amended to require a whelk permit endorsement, to identify commercial whelk harvesters.

Preliminary Maine landings data for 2011 based on buyer reports show about 40,500 pounds of whelks were landed in 2011, and harvesters were paid about $24,600 for those landings.

Harvesting Regulations (DMR Chapter 13, PDF file)

Biological Information: WAVED WHELK (Buccinum undatum)

Classification: Phylum: Mollusca Class: Gastropoda

Description: Waved whelks are medium sized, univalves with both axial and spiral ridges on their shell. When their soft body is exposed, it is white with black splotches. Two distinctive features of a whelk shell are an oval aperture and a siphonal notch.

Habitat: Waved whelks can be found along the Atlantic seaboard from the Arctic to New Jersey. They live subtidally to depths of about six hundred feet.

Movement: Whelks have a powerful muscular foot that glides on a film of mucus which they secrete.

Respiration: Respiration is accomplished through the use of a gill located in the animal's mantle cavity.

Ingestion: Waved whelks are primarily scavengers feeding on dead or dying marine organisms. They use their radula (or tongue) to scrape flesh form their prey. This file-like tongue is replaced as it is worn off.

Growth: These snails grow rapidly to their adult size of two to four inches in length. These mollusks grow larger in the northern part of their range.

Excretion: Wastes are passed from the kidneys and intestines into the mantle cavity where they are washed out of the body.

Nervous System: These snails have well-developed simple eyes and sensory tentacles that respond to light and other stimuli. Nerve masses are concentrated in the head region.

Circulation: Like most mollusks, whelks have an open circulatory system involving a two-chambered heart, vessels, and several blood sinuses.

Reproduction: Following breeding, females release masses of whitish eggs in large rounded capsules. These egg masses are attached to objects such as kelp stalks. Miniature whelks hatch out of these capsules. These egg cases are often called 'fisherman's soap' because they produce a lathery secretion when rubbed with water.

Common names: 'northern whelk', 'edible whelk', and 'European whelk'

Predators: cod, wolfish, sea stars, and man

Commercial Value: A 'by-catch' of the lobster fishery, 1992 landings were 15,954 lbs. valued at $3541.00.

Other Gulf of Maine Whelk Species: Dogwinkle (Thais lapillus), Ten Ridged Whelk (Neptunea decemcostata), Stimpson's Whelk (Colus stimpsoni), and Channeled Whelk (Busycon canaliculatum)

 

For more information, contact Denis-Marc Nault.